In a small and unassuming synagogue in East London, a queer yeshiva meets once a week to study Talmud. One Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend.
Let me back up: Around 500 C.E., a group of rabbis sat round a room debating, arguing and eating. Thus began the creation of the Talmud, one of the most central texts to Jewish theology. These conversations were radical and fresh interpretations of what the future of Jewish life could be and paved the way for millennia of Jewish scholarship.
Today, in that synagogue in East London, a group of queer Jews sit around eating, studying and grappling with that very same Talmud in order to uncover the dynamic, radical and queer nature of the text that can shape our own ethical position in the world.
The first of its kind outside of the U.S., the Queer Yeshiva uses a study method based on the SVARA technique established in a queer yeshiva in Chicago. The SVARA technique is a four-step method that studies Talmud in the original Hebrew and Aramaic; it aims to enable students to “own” the text through close reading, recitation and repetition. Launched by Babel’s Blessing, a diasporic language school based in London, the Queer Yeshiva course runs parallel to their other offerings, such as a b’nei mitzvah program for people who didn’t grow up Jewish and never had a b’nei mitzvah, or did it in the wrong name/gender.
The yeshiva was set up with grassroots funding; they raised over £5000 in one month with the majority of donations being between £10-20 by people who were excited by the prospect of the yeshiva and its mission. Any profit that Babel’s Blessing makes goes into funding English lessons for refugees. They also support students with scholarships to reduce any barriers to study. The group will be launching an intensive summer school this August.
The rabbi-in-training behind the project, Lev Taylor, describes the Queer Yeshiva as a natural continuation program for people who didn’t grow up Jewish. It’s become a way for queers and more alternative Jews who want to do religious study to come to grips with such a seminal and important text outside of the mainstream institutions that they often don’t feel accepted in. Hava Carvajal, Lev’s co-teacher, talks of the necessity of the program as queer Jews had been feeling “bereft of a language and our tradition.”
Lev grew up in an accepting liberal Jewish background, and only later in life did he realize how many of his queer Jewish friends didn’t have such a supportive environment, which ultimately motivated him to create a space that is safe and loving for queer people that need to know that God is unconditionally with them. It builds on a rich history of queer Jews in the U.K. in a movement led by pioneers such as the late Rabbi Sheila Shulman and Rabbi Lionel Blue alongside important queer faith groups such as KeshetUK.
All that’s needed to participate in the SVARA method is a basic understanding of the Hebrew alphabet. The class starts with a group check-in where people can dedicate their study to a particular person and share anything on their mind. Lev was initially worried whether British people, who are stereotypically less willing to talk about their emotions, would engage with this; however, the group embraced it wholeheartedly, which created an atmosphere conducive to broadening your mind and opening your heart. After the check-in. you split up into study partners and work on the extract of text chosen for that week. You translate “outside,” meaning you look up each word in a dictionary to find its multitude of meanings. After piecing each word together, you start to translate from “inside” and find what the text means for you.
This part of the process is where the Queer Yeshiva is at its most radical. Translating from the inside is about the student’s relationship to the text and what it might mean to them. After this process, everyone regroups and shares their thoughts, educating and inspiring each other. Chazara, the process of reviewing the text to understand it and own it, is a particularly important part of queering the Talmud. Lev explains that for queer people, their relationship with their bodies has often been fraught, and by embodying the text you embrace yourself as having the same subversive and beautiful qualities as the text. Hava adds that during the Chazara process, your mouth is full of the words and the Talmud flows through you. Your relationship to the text is far deeper than a theoretical one, which is the same as queerness, both intrinsic and beautiful parts of our individual experience which makes the study both necessary and transformative.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was schlepping to the East End, but in the few hours that I spent there, I felt moved beyond words. I listened to some of the most amazing, interesting and compassionate people grapple with a thousand-year-old text and apply its strange and radical meaning to their own modern lives.
The session I attended looked at a verse from Berachot 17a with one translation being: “May you see your world, may you benefit from all of the good in the world, in your lifetime, and may your end be to life in the World-to-Come, and may your hope be sustained for many generations.”
This gave rise to a discussion on community, role models and queer elders. There was a sense that in contrast to mainstream Judaism’s emphasis on the nuclear family, queer families are chosen and forged. In this discussion I saw a room full of people who were at once so different and yet so similar to each other express love, generosity and a sense of community. Every point of view was fresh and people were so willing to learn from one another that they would applaud when someone shed light on an interesting phrase. The spirit and energy of the room was so infectious that I left the session convinced that I’d witnessed something incredibly important.
When I asked Hava and Lev what was their biggest surprise since starting the yeshiva, Hava spoke about the relevance of the text to people’s lives today. Lev said that he couldn’t have anticipated how emotionally invested in it he would be. After two years of the pandemic, it’s projects like this that make us all feel that the world is healing.